Can a “law factory” and “bet the farm” approach to law practice co-exist under one roof? As law firms adapt to falling demand and price pressure, that question is increasingly important. A recent survey provides some data that co-existence may be hard.  

For background on the idea of law factory see my prior blog post Law Factory versus Bet the Farm Firm – learning from business (“We postulated that firms would gravitate toward poles on a spectrum:’bet the farm’ firms focusing on high-stakes matters versus ‘law factory’ firms focusing on run of the mill cases.”) and our ILTA presentation (A New View of the Automated Law Firm.)

Document review is a high volume and critical task in litigation and other matters. It has long been apparent that efficient and effective document review requires an industrial mindset and factory controls. It’s never been clear to me, however, that leading law firms share this view. Over the years, I have had many a conversation with lawyers and other professionals at BigLaw about how they run doc reviews and most, in private, admit that it is not a smooth process.

So I was not overly surprised to read the Cowen Group’s recent study The Current State: eDiscovery Practice Groups at AmLaw 200 Firms. Of the 87 of the AmLaw 200 that “have an area or practice group dedicated to handling eDiscovery matters,” only 21 “have an area or practice group dedicated to handling document review” and two-thirds do not have “attorneys [who] provide exclusive document review services at each firm.”

The legal profession is 20+ years into high volume discovery and document review and 10 years into e-discovery. If the AmLaw 200 have not industrialized a core process by now, it’s not clear they want to, can, or will. Observing the AmLaw 200 deal with document review these last two decades has felt a bit like watching the US automotive industry – at least until the recent bankruptcies.

Unless a firm has lawyers whose full-time focus is document review, I doubt it can efficiently run a review factory. So I read this finding as one data point that it is hard for “law factory” and the “bet the farm” to co-exist.

Another example – though I don’t have a study to point to – is immigration law. My sense is that this practice, with its high volumes, complex regulations, and detailed technical requirements inherently requires a factory like approach. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many large law firms don’t have an immigration practice and those that do have found ways to automate it heavily.

Comments welcome on other examples of where law factory and bet-the-farm can co-exist or not.

[Disclosure and meta-comment: My day job is with an LPO (legal process outsourcer) that has a big and highly routinized document review offering. Any “bias” I have toward the factory view is long-held. Already in 1990 I worked on a law firm team to industrialize document reviews. From the macro (box level reviews) to the micro (the way to apply Bates labels to paper) to the technology (scanning, OCR, full-text, and structured databases), we re-engineered the process and put in place metrics and controls.]

[For those who Tweet and want to write about this subject, I encourage the use of hash tag #LawFactory]